Mass Detentions in Xinjiang Persist on 27th Anniversary of Ghulja Massacre

February 5 of this year marked the 27th anniversary of the Ghulja Massacre. On that day in 1997, hundreds of people gathered in Ghulja, a county-level city in northwest Xinjiang (also known as Yining county, in Chinese), to protest government crackdowns on Uyghur culture. Authorities violently suppressed the protest, killing over 100 people and injuring many more, in response to alleged rioting. This year, in the context of what the U.N. has called possible crimes against humanity, Uyghur groups commemorated both past and present victims of the Chinese government’s policies, and highlighted the international community’s decades-long failure to react.

Muyesser Emin at the Campaign for Uyghurs provided a brief background to the Ghulja Massacre:

In the months leading up to the tragic Ghulja Massacre, the Chinese government imposed a ban on meshrep, a Uyghur social tradition known for its positive role in fostering community cohesion and cultural identity. This ban, justified by authorities under the pretext of “national security threats,” triggered a wave of arrests targeting thousands who were involved in these communal gatherings. The situation escalated in 1997 when a group of Uyghur women were detained for participating in a meshrep, prompting a mass peaceful demonstration on February 5th, in Ghulja. The protestors, voicing their demands for the release of the detainees and the restoration of their religious and cultural freedoms, were met with brutal force by the Chinese security forces. This ruthless suppression resulted in the death of over 100 individuals and left numerous others injured, marking a dark day in Uyghur history. In the massacre’s wake, the crackdown on Uyghurs intensified, leading to the arrest of nearly 4,000 Uyghurs and the execution of 200, further underscoring the Chinese government’s relentless assault on Uyghur identity and rights. [Source]

Underlying the protests and the violence that followed were starkly differing views on meshrep. The Uyghur Human Rights Project published a report last February that demonstrated how the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang constitute what UNESCO calls “strategic cultural cleansing,” by co-opting, distorting, and destroying Uyghur cultural heritage. One section of the report discussed the evolution of state policies towards meshrep in Xinjiang:

Meshrep, an umbrella term for Uyghur community gatherings that typically include food, music, joking and storytelling, and an informal community court, was added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2010. Both before and after the nomination, grassroots community Meshrep gatherings have been designated by the Chinese authorities as criminal activities, Meshrep leaders and participants have been arbitrarily detained, and Uyghur communities which formerly nurtured Meshrep have been uprooted. In their place, staged Meshrep shows have been used as tourist entertainment and for cultural diplomacy.

China’s “safeguarding” of the Meshrep involves separating the practice from its community roots and promoting versions that serve national and regional policy goals. Safeguarding Meshrep, as that term is understood in the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention as presupposing the “widest possible community participation,” is impossible under current conditions in the Uyghur region since all forms of civil assembly are regarded as suspicious. State security measures are directly hostile to the sustainability of grassroots Meshrep, precisely because of its role in creating meaningful local community. [Source]

For The Diplomat this week, Uyghur Human Rights Project Executive Director Omer Kanat wrote about the throughline between the Ghulja Massacre and more recent abuse of Uyghurs, noting that the early warning signs were ignored by the world:

In the intervening 20 years [since the founding of the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the World Uyghur Congress in 2004], Uyghur activists have had one consistent message. If the United Nations, governments, legislators, investors, and academics kept up their continuing engagement with China, despite deteriorating human rights conditions, this would only embolden Beijing. 

But governments ignored these warnings, and imposed no consequences on the Chinese government. It continued to imprison and execute Uyghurs on political charges, close spaces of religious practice and expression, impose tighter and tighter prohibitions on the use of Uyghur as a language of instruction in schools, exclude Uyghurs from economic life, and dispossess people from land and property. The massacres of protesters also continued, such as those in Ürümchi (July 2009), Hanerik (June 2013), Seriqbuya (April 2013), Alaqagha (May 2014), and Elishqu (July 2014). 

Let me be clear: China is responsible for the crimes against humanity committed in the Uyghur region. The fact that the outside world didn’t act was a failure of our systems to catch atrocities. The issue is pertinent to all of us. Our failure has made the world safer for genocidaires. What happened to the Uyghurs should become a lesson learned so that we can forestall future genocides before it is too late. [Source]

Other Uyghur leaders underscored this throughline and the imperative to respond to ongoing abuses. “Over the past 27 years, the Chinese government’s assault on Uyghur rights has intensified, turning into a genocide,” said World Uyghur Congress President, Dolkun Isa, who called on the international community to reflect on the lessons of Ghulja. Abdulhakim Idris, the executive director of the Center for Uyghur Studies, referred to the Ghulja Massacre as “[o]ne of the most painful days in recent Uyghur history,” and called on the Islamic world to denounce the CCP’s religious persecution of Uyghurs.

Many Uyghurs who were affected by the Ghulja Massacre, or who participated in meshrep activities in the subsequent decades, have more recently been detained in government re-education camps. Radio Free Asia reported on Behtiyar Abduweli, a teacher at Ili Pedagogical University in Ghulja, who was arrested in 2017 for organizing meshrep events in the 1990s and 2000s. Another man, Abdusalam Rozi, spent 18 years in prison after being detained during the Ghulja protests, and was later detained at a re-education camp before being given another 18-year prison sentence in 2019. At least ten other former prisoners from the Ghulja protests were detained for supposed crimes that had taken place many years earlier, including participation in a meshrep.

The Xinjiang Victims Database lists 1,058 detainees from Ghulja County and 1,306 from Ghulja City. Among them are Gulzia Qiash and Sare Islam, who were detained for having WhatsApp on their phones, and Muzapar Symail, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for having “problematic” apps on his phone. Dozens of others from Ghulja were detained for simply praying. These include Nurzat Sattar, who was sentenced to over ten years in prison; Asenzhan Toqtasyn, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison; and Yaqupjan Hesen and Tursunjan Sawut, both of whom died in detention. Dozens more have been detained for having relatives abroad, being classified as an “untrustworthy person,” wearing religious clothes, and having “problematic thoughts.”

To commemorate the Ghulja Massacre and call for an end to the ongoing mistreatment of Uyghurs, many Uyghur advocacy groups held protests around the world:

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